June 14. 2014 9:12PM

Ted Siefer's City Hall: Discussion of tax cap override laced with drama

MANCHESTER HAS a budget, and a historic one at that. For the first time since the voter-approved tax cap went into effect three years ago, the aldermen on Tuesday voted to override it, citing the need to deal with rising crime, abysmal roads and other lagging city services.

The approved budget is 3.99 percent larger than last year's, exceeding the tax cap by 1.86 percent. With a new combined tax rate of $23.58, taxes on a $200,000 house would go up by close to $200, to $4,716. (These numbers, however, won't be final until state revenue officials complete their own calculations later in the year.)

The politically radioactive prospect of an override and competing budget proposals made for a tense evening. It was in marked contrast to last year's budget process, when a group of aldermen and Mayor Ted Gatsas came together to present a warm and fuzzy budget (which, as it turned out, was underfunded to the tune of $7.5 million).

This year, there was a sense among the Democratic majority on the board that the Republican Gatsas, by presenting a tax cap budget with a $6 million shortfall, forced them to stick their necks out on an override while he kept his own tucked in his collar.

Twice during the meeting, Gatsas called for recesses. The first came with a dramatic pound of his gavel after Aldermen Joyce Craig and Pat Long presented their 3.99 percent budget. Gatsas said he wanted to confer with his finance and legal heads on the numbers - a dramatic indication that he hadn't been kept in the loop on the Craig-Long plan.

Another caucus was held to make some tweaks to the numbers to satisfy Alderman Bill Shea and two of his colleagues, who presented their own override budget last week; that one had support from the mayor.

In the end, Gatsas could again don the mantle of compromise. The budget, after all, met his red line that it not to exceed a 4 percent hike - of course, only by the slimmest of margins. But even his attempt at diplomacy had sharp edges.

"I think coming up with a compromise budget is something everyone should feel good about," he said. "The alternative (layoffs) would not have been good. I know firemen would've been going home, and police would've been going home, because this board would not let me manage the budget."

Then it came time for Alderman Dan O'Neil, the Democratic chairman of the board, to speak.

"I want to thank all of the aldermen for their efforts," he said.

Gatsas interjected: "You don't want to thank the mayor?

"Mayor, we have a process," O'Neil replied, exasperated. But then, he added, "All right, I'll include you. I don't want you going home sad."

THERE WAS a first act to Tuesday's drama, and that concerned the DOA tax cap budget proposed by Aldermen Keith Hirschmann and Joe Kelly Levasseur.

It was voted down, 12-2, but it was at least given the time of day by the pair's colleagues, who peppered them with questions.

One thing that quickly became clear is that Hirschmann, the chief architect of the budget, did his homework. He had ready answers for every cut to every department he proposed, including $1,200 for the Economic Development Office to build a new smartphone app. Hirschmann said he knew someone at Dyn, the Internet technology company in the Millyard, who would be happy to help the city get the app for free.

The most eye-opening cut proposed in the Levasseur-Hirschmann budget was the $5,000 for catered hot meals for the aldermen; as he informed me, the food is kept in chafing dishes in the City Hall anteroom during full board meetings.

"I propose that we buy our own lasagna back home," he said.

THE CYNICAL view is that the override happened now because it's an off-year for city elections and voters' memories will fade by November 2015.

But at least one alderman, Garth Corriveau, sounded confident that voters understood the city is facing exceptional challenges. He noted he and his wife are expecting a baby any day now.

"That sense of responsibility, knowing we're going to be new parents, to really balance the budget, that was the challenge before us tonight, to act as responsible adults and to meet our priorities - improving roads and public safety, advancing education. I join with the mayor in saying it's time to move this city forward," he said.

Sounds like Patrick Arnold is not the only one again considering a run for mayor.

ON TO more important matters: the mystery of City Hall's midnight caller.

The police have been investigating the possibility that someone used a key to enter City Hall and make calls to a couple of aldermen late on June 5.

For mystery buffs, the likely explanation was a bit of a letdown: Police suspect the caller used a phone or computer application to make it appear he or she was calling from the mayor's office.

The recipients of the calls were unnerved by them, not least because a call from the mayor's office near midnight couldn't portend good news.

As it turns out, the caller appears to have been a resident angry that the aldermen were poised to override the tax cap.

"They said, 'We voted you in, and we can vote you out,' that type of thing," said one of the aldermen, who did not want to be identified because the official was concerned about being targeted again. "I questioned why the call was coming from City Hall, and he said he had a key. I said I don't believe it."

Also receiving a "City Hall" call was Alderman Bill Shea.

He described the call as "unusual," but he added, ". I really don't want to say too much."

Ted Siefer is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He may be reached at tsiefer@unionleader.com and followed on Twitter @tbsreporter.